Promiscuous Gay Nerd: What Happens to Twinks When They Grow Up?
I never message guys online whose profiles say they aren’t into older guys. This seemingly ubiquitous statement began to lose any meaning when I turned 25 and started receiving messages from 19-year-old guys whose profiles unironically declared they were looking for a daddy.
I started going to gay bars when I was 15. Tired of being the punchline of my hetero peers’ jokes, I desperately searched for a community to call my own. I was rebellious, angsty, but also damned crafty: I forged a fake membership card to the local disco by scanning my provisional driver’s license, editing the birth date, and laminating the edited print-out opposite a downloaded JPEG of the club’s logo from the their website. Nerds, FTW.
Having begun my training so young, by the time I was actually legally able to drink I had cultivated quite the twink aesthetic. Tight 29-inch-waist jeans. Platform heels. Blonde highlighted spiky hair to the heavens. I was basically a gay anime character a-la-Dragonball-Z, and I fucking loved it. My friends and I would roll up to the local dance hall three or four nights a week, polyester and glitter trailing behind us, dropping it like it was hot and cage-dancing the night away.
Going out dancing until 4 a.m. four nights a week, it turns out, is the cardio equivalent of running a marathon every week. After graduating college and growing up a smidge, those 29-inch jeans stopped fitting. Pile on a two-and-a-half year abusive relationship, and somehow I found myself an almost-30-something who avoided mirrors to not have to look at what I had become.
What happens to twinks when they grow up? I found myself wondering this out loud to my boyfriend this past weekend after we ran into an old friend of his, Jason, at the bar. Jason was probably 30 or so, white, with bleached blonde hair that was receding, a collared shirt that was strewn open to reveal his shaved, orange chest, and lines on his face that betrayed his love of tanning beds. My boyfriend—a lover of hair and bears—couldn’t help but express his frustration. “Why do you still shave? Chest hair is so sexy!” His friend’s cheery smile turned into something of a frown. “You know, it just makes my dick limp,” he lamented. With a swish and a smile, he sashayed away.
If Jason’s anything like me, he spent years honing his look and affect. Handsome and funny as he is, I’m sure it worked for him at some point. But now, his tight-fitting clothes and orange and blonde aesthetic read anachronistic and decidedly unsexy.
Critics use aging twinks like Jason to lambast gay culture as being tragically obsessed with youth and unobtainable beauty. But as a former twink myself, I think this is only half the story. First, it ignores the fact that many people have trouble updating their style and affect into adulthood. I learned how to dress, fuck, talk, joke, dance, make friends, and party as a twink. That kind of embodied habit—what sociologists would call “habitus”—is hardly forgotten overnight. “Mom jeans” are a thing for a reason. We get stuck in our ways.
But there’s a gender problem here that is almost always lost in the discussion. “Twink” offered me, as a fey young man, a way to package my lanky body and sissy self in a way that other gay men found hot. Men wanted to fuck this twink. I was more than happy to oblige.
Entering my 30s, the options for crafting a gay adult identity seemed narrow. On the one hand, there is the ubiquitous muscular man. Add some hair to him and you could call him a musclebear. On the other end of the BMI scale, there are bears and cubs.
While there are surely lots of other creatures in the gay universe, all of these ways of being gay men felt to me to be premised on a kind of masculinity that has terrorized me for the better part of my life. Whether it was getting the shit kicked out of me by my male classmates, or being threatened by men passing me on the street, I have paid a steep price for being a sissy in a sexist word.
Being a twink offered me a way to embrace my femininity, to feel sexy, and to be desired. But what’s next? There’s no going back, after all. That ship has sailed.
During a recent visit to San Francisco, I found myself in the once-familiar routine of getting ready to go out dancing. It had been ages. When I complained that I wasn’t sure what I should wear, my friend Jack offered me a new shirt he had picked up in his travels. It was a plain black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “BEARBIE” in pink; beneath those letters, a muscled man lay in the outline of binoculars. I squealed with delight, threw off whatever tired-ass shirt I was wearing, and tried it on. It was a perfect fit.
Looking back, I think that moment was a turning point for me. Something as silly and simple as a T-shirt gave me an entirely new way to think about my gender and sexuality. Bearbie. Ridiculous, right? But however trifling it may seem, the term seemed to have just enough room for my gender and my new body. It encouraged me to think playfully about my gender, my sexuality, my desire.
I won’t be adding “Bearbie” to my Grindr profile anytime soon. At least I don’t expect I will. But the shirt reminded me of the joy that can come when we play with categories and think creatively about gender and sexuality. I had gotten so caught up in not being able to grow a beard or act macho that I had forgotten the pleasure that coloring outside the lines can bring.
What’s your “Bearbie”? Let me know in the comments!
Jake Sobo is a pen name used for anonymity. Jake has worked in the world of HIV prevention for nearly a decade. He previously published a 19-part series documenting his experiences on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), “My Life on PrEP,” for Positive Frontiers magazine, which was picked up by Manhunt, translated into French, and widely read in the HIV prevention world. He has spent the better part of his adult life having as much sex as possible while trying to avoid contracting HIV.